Razorbacks Ready to Exorcise Ghosts of NLR Games Past vs Bradley

Nick Smith
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

Nick Smith Jr. has never played in Simmons Bank Arena, but having grown up in central Arkansas, he’s seen the Razorbacks play in the venue several times.

Now playing for them, the freshman phenom will try to help No. 10 Arkansas basketball get a different result in Saturday’s matchup against Bradley than when he went as a fan.

“It’s kind of funny,” Smith said. “When I think about it, every time I went to an Arkansas game in Little Rock they lost. So that’s one of the things I’m not trying to do this weekend, for sure.”

There’s certainly a lot of hype surrounding the game, which is scheduled to tip off at 3 p.m. and won’t be televised, because it’s the first time in 30 years — and first time ever in this venue — the Razorbacks will host a game in central Arkansas as a top-10 team.

The last time Arkansas played in such a game was in 1992, when the No. 9 Razorbacks were led by freshman sharp-shooter Scotty Thurman and freshman forward Corliss Williamson was out because of an injury. Despite Thurman’s 22 points, Arkansas lost to Louisiana-Monroe 87-78 inside Barton Coliseum.

It was the final time the Razorbacks played in that venue, dropping its overall record at Barton Coliseum to 80-21 (.792), and it’d be another seven years before they resumed the annual tradition of playing in central Arkansas.

Unfortunately for Arkansas, that upset loss to ULM was the start of a troubling trend. Since Alltel/Verizon/Simmons Bank Arena opened in North Little Rock, the Razorbacks are barely over .500 in the arena, going 12-10 since 1999.

The only time Arkansas has ever played in North Little Rock as a top-25 team came last season, when Hofstra defeated the No. 24 Razorbacks 89-81 — arguably the worst loss of the Eric Musselman era.

That loss makes Arkansas just 10-10 in the supposed home games since 2001-02, when playing there became an annual event (excluding the pandemic-altered 2020-21 season). That stretch includes three different multi-year losing streaks. In the same time frame, the Hogs are a combined 293-71 (.801) when playing in Fayetteville.

Why Arkansas vs Bradley Isn’t Televised

Needless to say, recent central Arkansas games have left a lingering bad taste for Razorback fans. This goes without even mentioning the fact that all of these North Little Rock games – including this game featuring the No. 10 Razorbacks in the year 2022 – aren’t televised. Because ESPN owns the rights to these games, only an ESPN channel or the SEC Network + would be able to broadcast/stream them. Because Bradley isn’t a marquee opponent, one of the ESPN channels won’t broadcast it. On top of that, the infrastructure needed to stream games on the SEC Network+ is located in Fayetteville and not portable enough to transport.

When asked about the Razorbacks’ poor record down there, Smith – a Jacksonville native who went to North Little Rock High School – revealed that Musselman has used it as a talking point in practice this week.

“Coach Muss definitely doesn’t like to lose,” Smith said. “We just want to play Arkansas basketball on Saturday. Wherever we’re at – Oklahoma, Little Rock, Jacksonville, the Bahamas – we’re going to play Arkansas basketball and try to dominate and get a win.”

Now, almost exactly a year after their forgettable Hofstra loss, the Razorbacks are looking to rid themselves of the doom-and-gloom hanging over Simmons Bank Arena when they welcome Bradley (7-3) to town Saturday afternoon.

What to Expect from Bradley

Brian Wardle is in his eighth season as Bradley’s head coach and he’s set to bring an experienced group of veterans to North Little Rock to face the Razorbacks for the first time in school history. Of the 13 players who have played for Bradley this year, eight of them played for the Braves last year and another is an experienced transfer from Troy in junior guard Duke Deen.

Ja’Shon Henry, a 6-foot-6 forward, returned for his fifth year at Bradley this season after suffering a season-ending concussion only 12 games into last season. Unfortunately for Henry – who was averaging 13 points and 6 rebounds per game – he suffered what is believed to be the fourth concussion of his career on Nov. 19, only four games into this season. He has yet to play since the injury, but Musselman noted the team is preparing for Henry to return to the court.

Reink Mast, a 6-foot-9 junior, leads the team in scoring and rebounding at 13 points and 7.8 rebounds per game after missing the first six games of the season with a knee injury. He also boasts an impressive 18.2% rebound rate — an estimate of the amount of available rebounds a player grabs while they’re on the court. For reference, Arkansas’ Makhi Mitchell averages 5.5 rebounds at a 17.5% rebound rate.

Mast also shoots nearly 43% from long range on 1.8 attempts per game. Mitchell has proven himself to be an all-around defender this season, but he’ll face another big test in keeping Mast neutralized on the boards while also preventing him from getting open looks on the perimeter. Expect a large dose of this heavyweight matchup throughout the contest.

Senior transfer forward Malevy Leons joins Mast in the front court. He stands at 6-foot-9 and averages 6.7 rebounds per game. This will be an intriguing matchup for the Hogs in their second game without 6-foot-10 forward Trevon Brazile. It’s worth paying attention to whether Musselman sticks with his small-ball lineups that feature Anthony Black, Ricky Council and Jordan Walsh at the forward positions or if he combats size with size and rolls out a second big man like Jalen Graham, Kamani Johnson or Makhel Mitchell.

Bradley fields several dangerous shooters, including four players shooting at least 38.9% from 3-point range. Removing the 17-of-55 (31%) shooting of Troy transfer Duke Deen – which is still a respectable shooting average from a more-than-capable shooter – the team is shooting 37.1% from deep.

So far this season, only Creighton, Oklahoma and San Jose State have shot above 40% from the 3-point line against Arkansas. The Hogs will have their work cut out for them to keep Bradley from joining that list – but if they do, this game should never be in question.

What to Expect from Arkansas

In their first game without breakout forward Trevon Brazile, Arkansas put together a convincing 88-78 victory over Oklahoma in Tulsa. The Razorbacks leaned heavily on their backcourt, playing their five guards and wings between 24 and 40 minutes while allotting only 21 minutes for Makhi Mitchell and 16 minutes for Kamani Johnson.

This was an effective method against the Sooners, who use only one player standing over 6-foot-7 more than 13 minutes per game. Bradley, however, starts three players standing at least 6-foot-8. This does not guarantee them an advantage on the interior, but it might change the game plan for Eric Musselman and force his hand in using his deep bench of forwards. Don’t be surprised if he once again tinkers with the rotation, giving big men like Jalen Graham and Makhel Mitchell another chance to increase their role.

Ricky Council IV bounced back in a big way after scoring only 8 points on 14% shooting against UNC Greensboro. He poured in 26 points (one shy of matching his season high set against Troy) while shooting 67% from the field, 50% from long range and 71% from the free throw line. This level of efficiency is nothing new for the transfer wing – he has shooting splits of 53%, 31% and 80% this season – and he’ll likely play a big role offensively against a lengthy, disruptive Bradley defense.

Makhi Mitchell turned in another well-rounded game from the center position. He played only 21 minutes, but he tallied 10 points on 63% shooting – his sixth game this season shooting at least that well from the field. He also contributed 6 rebounds, 4 assists (season high), 2 blocks and 1 steal in the Razorbacks’ 10-point victory over Oklahoma.

Perhaps more importantly than anything on the box score, however, is Mitchell’s ability to defend both the perimeter and the interior without fouling. In his last five games, he has 10 blocks and only 8 fouls – an impressive ratio for the defensive-oriented big man – while also averaging 9.4 points and 7.2 rebounds. Expect a continuously important role for Mitchell as the Hogs approach conference play.

Nick Smith Jr. had his most efficient game of the season against the best opponent he’s faced last Saturday when he scored 21 points on 50% shooting against Oklahoma. He also knocked down all four of his free throw attempts and logged 2 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 steal. Smith’s return has been huge for the Hogs, not only because of his ability to score at a high level, but also due to his ability to elevate all of his teammates around him.

“Winning is so important to (Smith), No. 1,” Musselman said. “And then No. 2, I think he understands that you have to respect the defense and take what the defense gives you. I think all those things are part of who he is as a basketball player – what his DNA is.

“Defenses are going to focus in on him. He’s going to draw extra defenders when he’s in isolation or pick-and-roll situations. So, certainly, not only a willingness to be a passer but also a feel for who to pass to and when to pass to is really important.”

It’s worth noting that Smith did seem to land a bit awkwardly late in the game and immediately checked out before half-jogging into the locker room under his own power. He later returned to the bench, though he never returned to the game.

“It was just a little something going on,” Smith said when asked about the issue. “I just went back (in the locker room) and tested some stuff out and everything was fine.”

Smith does not have any injury designations heading into the game against Bradley.

What to Watch in Arkansas vs Bradley

As a team, Bradley allows only 59.2 points per game, ranking 20th in the nation. It also ranks 60th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. However, the Braves’ points per game allowed moves up slightly to 59.3 in road games and all the way up to 70.0 in neutral site matchups – which is essentially what the game in NLR will be despite being classified as a home game.

The game is in Arkansas in front of a Razorback crowd, but the routine of everyone involved indicates it’s more of a neutral site game. Players and coaches have to go through the travel process, sleep in beds that are not their own, get ready in a locker room that’s not their own, and shoot on rims they’ll see only once this year – all indicators of a neutral site game.

The only thing that tilts this game closer to being a home matchup is the rowdy central Arkansas crowd that should fire up the players, though that clearly hasn’t played a large factor in their last 20 games in the arena.

Regardless of where the game is being played, the players and staff are focused on the task at hand. Smith in particular knows this battle is going to be won or lost by the defenses.

“It starts on the defensive end,” said Smith. “Bradley is one of the best mid-majors in the country. I feel like they’re going to make a run to the NCAA Tournament. They’re a good team. We’ve just got to play Arkansas basketball and play the right way… The game might be close, we might be trailing, you never know. We’ve just got to go out there and play hard.”

Arkansas hasn’t struggled to score in many games this season, but they’ve historically hit slumps when playing in central Arkansas. In fact, seven of the last eight times Arkansas has played down there, it has scored below its season non-conference average – a 90-56 win over Sam Houston State in 2016-17 was the only exception.

This year, however, Arkansas is averaging more than 83 points in neutral site games and only 76.5 points in games at Bud Walton Arena – it has yet to play a true road game this season. The Hogs have scored more than 80 points only four times this season and three of those came away from Fayetteville and the fourth was their only game with the entire roster healthy in a 99-58 rout of San Jose State.

It’s worth paying attention to whether or not the Hogs can maintain their hot shooting away from Fayetteville or if they find struggles against a capable defensive team in North Little Rock – where they’re only 4-2 in their last six games with a combined scoring average below 80 points.

Game Prediction

Arkansas will struggle to score efficiently in Simmons Bank Arena, but its defense will travel well, as it has all season. The Razorbacks will hold Bradley below its season 3-point percentage (35%) and point total (69.0) while also creating easy opportunities in transition.

Ricky Council IV shows off his offensive arsenal yet again – and perhaps makes another SportsCenter worthy dunk – on his way to leading the team in scoring. More big men get a chance at playing time against what projects to be a bigger physical lineup for Bradley, led by the emerging Makhi Mitchell. The Razorbacks pick up their 10th win of the season, beating the 8-point spread projected by ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, but coming up short of the 20.5-point spread on BetSaracen.

Arkansas, 74-61

How to Watch Arkansas vs Bradley

Date: Saturday, Dec. 17

Location: Simmons Bank Arena (North Little Rock, Ark.)

Tipoff Time: 3 p.m. CT (Not televised)

Radio: Learfield Razorback Sports Network / Razorback Gameday App

ESPN BPI: Arkansas has a 78.9% chance of winning, favored by 8.6 points

Watch Eric Musselman and Nick Smith Jr. preview the Arkansas vs Bradley matchup:


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